Compliments from a Sales Guy

Why do sales guys find it so hard to pay an engineer a compliment?

Imagine this exchange

Jeff: Hi John, how was your weekend?

John: Great, I ran the London marathon and finished in 3 hours dead

Jeff: That’s amazing I can’t believe you managed to run all that way!

Jeff is trying to pay a compliment, but because he has such little idea of what John considers to be important he misses the mark and if anything is more likely to have caused offence.

Now take this into a professional environment. Jeff is a superb engineer, he sweats and bleeds over his code, he does this quietly and in the background, he takes pride in his work and just wants to see people benefit from using his systems. No-one outside of the engineering org really notices his impact because, due to him, everything ‘just works’  with almost zero drama.

One day he receives a request from John in sales who needs him to twiddle knob X, it’s a config change and he has it in production later the same afternoon – really nothing special. That said Jeff has really helped John out  and John is very genuinely grateful. He writes him an email thanking him, he even cc’s his boss. “Jeff I really appreciate all the hard work you put into twiddling knob X, it’s guys like you crushing the knob twiddler that make this company awesome’. Now Jeff should pleased, it’s nice of John to take the time, he recognises this, but it’s a terrible compliment since Jeff took no pride in the change and what’s more it’s clear from John’s email that he has no idea what Jeff does all day – if anything the mail is a de-motivator despite John’s best intentions.

So what should John have done, how do you compliment an engineer? The best possible way is to take the time to understand some of the complexities of their work, and thereby uncover some of what drives them and their passion.

This is of course uncomfortable and frustrating, a bit like trying to write with your weaker hand – the benefits are huge though. Let’s forget for a second about expressing thanks being a nice thing to do  – it also a way to influence and build trust across the organisation.

If as an individual, you can build trust and rapport in multiple parts of the org, you much better placed to get things done – especially when you really need a favour to get you out of a jam.

In this example, I’ve used a Sales guys and an Engineer, simply because I see this as the classic case, but it applies equally in reverse. It’s easy (and lazy) for an Engineer to dismiss Sales or Marketing as brainless – when in reality this attitude is simply highlighting ignorance of what it takes to be successful in these fields.

The point of this post? Try and figure out what those folks with the suits and nice hair are actually doing, it will benefit both you and your company. If they are open to it, try and share some of your stuff too.

On the flip side insults work in the same way, you might enjoy Professor Douglas Comer‘s essay  ‘How to Criticise Computer Scientists’

What would happen if you stopped paying people?

So I want to tell you about a chap called Rob Ashton. I don’t know Rob but he appears to be extremely excellent. Having got a bit narked off with his enterprise consultancy gig, Rob decided to toss it all in. Without a firm plan in plan in mind, Rob decided to make an offer to the world – anyone willing to cover his expenses could have Rob come and work for them for free. Initially I think the plan was to stick to Europe but things seem to have got out of hand and Rob got all over the place. You can read about it here.

Rob was very strict on the whole ‘not receiving payment’ thing, noting:-

I was offered pay for a number of roles while I was doing this, and turned it all down because I felt it would sully what I was trying to do. Also – I felt it would muck up the balance where the people I was working for really wanted me to be happy because it was all they were giving me.

And this me thinking, companies want to hire the best people they can. As a means to achieve this some companies come to the startling conclusion that if you want to hire and retain good people you need to be prepared to pay for them.

But this isn’t enough. Staff can only be as effective as the company allows them to be. If the company culture stifles productivity and those same staff, while more productive that others, are still not able to fully deliver.

What’s worse is that the company doesn’t realise this is happening, no company deliberately aims to clamp down on productivity. Things tick on the way they always have done, the star hires perform well relatively speaking, and staff stick around because taking a pay cut is difficult. So the warning signs are less obvious.

An interesting thought experiment would be to ask yourself

What would happen if you staff worked for free, what would you need to change?

Let’s ignore the practical implications of this statement, all I’m saying is, if you take money off the table what would keep your staff wanting to work at your company? This isn’t about extra perks and a ball pool, I’m including all extrinsic motivators. This is about identifying what it is about your organisation that demotivates, and identifying how the organisation could improve intrinsic motivation.

  • How would your approach to flexible working change?
  • How about performance review and professional development?
  • Most importantly, what would be the implications for your org chart?

The answers will highly dependent on context, but if we make the assumption that in many cases the goals of the staff member and company are aligned, then why wouldn’t a company want to act on the conclusions?

I think we are starting to see the results of this already in the form of a shift towards flatter hierarchies, ad-hoc work groups and acknowledgement that people are more important than process. Some companies lead the way such as Valve and Gore but any company could benefit from asking themselves this question.

What ‘How your company treats exiting staff’ says about you

Nothing impacts your working life like company culture and yet culture is very difficult to assess. This problem keeps me up at night and I’ve written about it before in ‘Why work at your company?

The trouble is that in many cases, the company itself does not really know that much about its own culture and even if it did, expressing it in a sincere manner is challenging, in fact most companies don’t even try at all.

But how about this as a question to quickly determine a how a company feels about its staff?

“HR hoops aside, what happened the last time someone left your company?”

Seems pretty innocent, no? Every company can answer that question in a positive manner, but I think the variations speak volumes.

For instance, recently we said goodbye to junior (ish) developer, he’d been with the company 18 months and was leaving to pursue a childhood dream to work as an air traffic controller (actually true).

On his last day there was a leaving ceremony where a few words were said in the office and a leaving gift presented, immediately afterwards there was a trip to the pub for those wishing to see him off.

Nothing unusual so far.

But it was the whole office of eighty people that turned out – the parting gifts, while inexpensive, were completely personalised – in this case it was a ‘make your own picture book’ with each picture and audio presenting some sort of in joke – jokes understood by the whole group. In similar situations, gifts have included a ‘time of day’ vs ‘date’ commit plot for a notoriously nocturnal team member, a Wordle of IRC logs for an especially chatty colleague and even a framed 3ware card (his nemesis) for a long suffering sys admin.

The pub trip was not just his team or engineering, but had attendees from across the entire company, and at all levels of seniority. Numbers were high, especially given it was a Friday night.

It was a sad occasion, but in many ways felt like a celebration. ‘Great working with you, can’t wait to see what you do next’ – it’s one thing for your immediate work mates to say this, but how about a whole company?

What struck me was how normal this felt, this is completely standard practice for us. Why wouldn’t we act in this way? On reflection I think that this would be considered unusual at most organisations. Such sends off are not unheard of but usually reserved for especially treasured members of the team. This difference say something about our culture.

By comparison, at my friend’s organisation, a senior (much loved) member of staff of 20 years service cannot even expect their manager to drop into their leaving ceremony. Their reluctance to attend driven by fear of tacit endorsement. It’s the same set up, leaving ceremony followed by pub, but a completely different feel.

How a company treats its exiting employees, speaks volumes to remaining staff. The actions of individuals in response to the leaver, reflect the company’s culture. Since the leaver no longer has any direct value to the company, these actions speak honestly about how the company values people.

So ask yourself, how does your company treat exiting employees and what does it say about the culture? What message are you sending to remaining staff? It is not for management to mandate a leaving procedure, but it is for management to create an environment where people matter.